There's something cooking at the U.S. National Team Development Program's training center in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the main ingredient is high-end defensemen. There are seven of them -- but most notably five with 1992 birthdays projected to go in the top two rounds of the June 25 NHL draft.
They are Derek Forbort, Jon Merrill, Stephen Johns, Jarred Tinordi and Justin Faulk. (The under-agers, eligible for the 2011 draft, are Adam Clendening and Frankie Simonelli.) Collectively, they're a hulking group of diversely talented blueliners with the size and skill coveted by NHL teams. Instead of going the junior hockey route, they each chose to hone their skills playing the development program's grueling schedule against older, stronger college teams, and to participate in its rigorous off-ice training program.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Forbort, of Duluth, Minn., is ranked No. 11 overall by NHL Central Scouting. He is a detail-oriented, two-way defender, always spot-on with his stick position, reach and angles. He had five goals and 23 assists in 65 games this season.
The 6-3, 205-pound Merrill (No. 20) plays the point on the power play and uses smarts and great on-ice vision to slow the play and control the transition game. The Brighton, Mich., native tallied five goals and 27 assists in 56 games this season.
Getty ImagesStephen Johns is elite on the rush and ranked 35th overall by CSS.
The 6-3, 220-pound Johns, of Wampum, Penn., (No. 35) is outstanding on the rush and is likely the strongest player, pound-for-pound, in the program. He's a physical presence on the penalty kill and had three goals and 19 points in 62 games.
The 38th-ranked Tinordi, son of former NHL D-man Mark Tinordi, is 6-4 and 205 pounds. He's known for on- and off-ice leadership and is a tough, stay-at-home backliner who finishes his checks in the corners. Tinordi had 17 points and 105 penalty minutes in 65 games this season.
The 56th-ranked Faulk is, at 5-11, the shortest in the group, but at 200 pounds, he's right there with the others in the muscle category. The South St. Paul, Minn., native, known for his heavy shot from the point, is the most offensively gifted defenseman in the program. Last season, he set an NTDP season record for defensemen with 21 goals in 60 games, besting the mark of 16 set by St. Louis Blues defenseman Erik Johnson.
Ryan Rezmierski, the program's director of player personnel, insists there was no great shift toward defense that led to the development of this year's defensive class. "The moons just aligned for us," he says. "Defensively, this draft class was exceptionally deep across the United States. And let's face it, these guys all have what the NHL wants: freakish -- and I mean that in a most endearing way -- physical tools."
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